As Lebanon Bleeds
A Savage and Unwinnable Gambit
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, July 14, 2006
The irony is that Israel’s conditions for a cease-fire are nothing if not reasonable: Return the two Israeli soldiers. Quit the rocket attacks on Northern Israel. Disarm Hezbollah. Any Lebanese worth his cedars would gladly set out those conditions himself, especially in light of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s cowardly mongering for “open war” at Lebanon’s expense. But in the meantime, this? A nation taken hostage? Thirty civilians a day slaughtered in the bombing? An economy finally on its feet, ruined all over again? A blockade? This isn’t just a matter of disproportion. It’s sheer madness, the result of an Israeli prime minister with something of a Kennedyesque inferiority complex (Lebanon as a Bay of Pigs, but without the benefit of invasion interruptus) enabled and just about applauded by an American president who wouldn’t know the difference between a self-defensive war and crimes against humanity if Saint Augustin shouted it in his ears, deafened as they’ve been by his predilection for shock and awe.
If Ehud Olmert intends what he says—that the military assault and blockade will end when Hezbollah is disarmed—then this is a repeat of 1982, intended then to end only when the PLO was thrown out of Lebanon. What did that achieve? The creation of Hezbollah and the end of Israel as a nation merely defending itself: From then on it played the untenable pre-emption card, a card it couldn’t hold. It first withdrew to its “buffer” zone in south Lebanon, then withdrew altogether in 2000, wracked from insupportable pressures abroad and at home that thinly spread occupations couldn’t abide. Withdrawal from Gaza was the inevitable result of the same pressures. The question always was this: when Palestinians and Hezbollah would continue to provoke (and act against their own interests) instead of negotiate, would Israel take the bait or wait them out? The bait it would be. It isn’t just Hamas and Hezbollah who have a knack for self-destruction.
Meanwhile the Thomas Friedman of Beirut—the Daily Star’s Michael Young—writes an op-ed for the Times all but calling for war on Syria, if not Iran. His analysis isn’t wrong, half-way down his column’s Tigris: One line Hezbollah crossed, Young writes, “was its evident coordination of strategy with Hamas; this went well beyond its stated aim of simply defending Lebanon and left Israel feeling it was fighting a war on two fronts.” Another line “was domestic. By unilaterally taking Lebanon into a conflict with Israel, Hezbollah sought to stage a coup d’état against the anti-Syrian parliamentary and government majority, which opposes the militant group’s adventurism.” Fine. So Hezbollah is running its rogue state-within-a-state in South Lebanon. And Syria and Iran play Hezbollah like they’ve played any vigilante militia to their advantage. Better spill Lebanese blood than their own.
What’s Young’s solution? Lebanon certainly has nothing to do with it. “It would be far smarter for Israel, and America, to profit from Hezbollah’s having perhaps overplayed its hand.” In other words, enforce the UN Security Council resolution calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament. How he proposes to get that done, not even Young knows, considering President Bush’s squarely war-abetting stance on Israel’s side, rather than on the side of a just solution the United States could perhaps pressure toward. The Israeli attack and Bush’s endorsement have all but ensured that the Hezbollah supermyth as a “resistance” movement is perversely legitimized, in the same way that Iran’s Mullahs have used the American invasion and occupation of Iraq to justify the re-radicalization of Iranian politics toward the West.
True, in so far as Hezbollah is concerned, the fuse is lit in Damascus and in Teheran, and it stretches conveniently far from either, into Lebanon’s heartland, where any blow-up keeps its collateral damage to Lebanese blood. But it doesn’t stop in Teheran and Damascus. The radicalization of the Mideast, its perpetual fall-back into this default compulsion for dead-ended savagery in the name of “self-defense,” takes its ultimate source from the Bush administration’s bomb-first, talk-never attitude that it launched in Iraq and finds itself defending to this day.
There’s an unappetizing parallel here between Hezbollah and America’s neo-cons. Both were on the outs. Hezbollah’s regressive ideology, like Hamas’s, like al-Qaeda’s, cannot exist without war. But Hezbollah’s ideology was rotting in South Lebanon. It had lost its purpose, Israel having retreated in all but one miserly contested stretch of real estate known as the Shebaa Farm. Meanwhile neo-cons’ intellectual base deserted them as their Iraq experiment bankrupted them. But with merely a little provocation, Hezbollah got Israel to pounce back and give Hezbollah the re-charge it needed, just as neo-cons are attempting, with the likes of Michael Young and Bush’s apologia in the face of mayhem, to use the Hamas-Hezbollah axis as reason to expand the mission in the Middle East and go after Syria, if not Iran. Michael Young: “ Israel can brutalize Lebanon all it wants, but unless something is done to stop Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, from exporting instability to buttress his despotic regime, little will change.” Young might as well have been ghost-writing the words of John Bolton, the American ambassador to the United Nations. “President Bush has made clear that Syria and Iran must be held to account for supporting regional terrorism and their role in the current crisis.” What does that mean, held to account, in Bush administration lingo? “Smoke them out,” as Bush infamously said of the risibly at-large bin Laden posse?
Hezbollah can give up the two Israeli soldiers tomorrow. It won’t disarm unless the Lebanese government forces it to. It’s more likely to press its own latest lunge at savagery with its usual nothing-to-lose brazenness at others’ expense. And the Lebanese government’s shard of legitimacy has just been pulverized by Israel’s assault, which makes the Lebanese government look the impotent knave it’s been all along. Of course Hezbollah needs to be eliminated. But it can’t happen from without. Israel is only reinforcing Hezbollah’s hand and retarding its disintegration, the way the American occupation in Iraq reinforces the insurgency’s hand. Force, that appetizing recourse of the post 9/11era, has been every crisis’ most lethal seductress.
So to suggest that Israel is looking for a solution here, to suggest that it’s playing for peace, is to be as cynical as those imbeciles who claim Israel is being “humanitarian” by raining leaflets of evacuation warnings before dropping its tonnage of barbarism in civilian zones. When rogue goes against rogue, and a rogue-in-chief stands by from his Roman-themed colonnades a Potomac away, a just solution is not only not being sought; it’s a virtual impossibility. What we’re seeing in Lebanon today is what we saw there in 1982: an assault justified by the false rhetoric of self-defense, but actually a seeding of further hatreds and regression. In 1982, Hezbollah bloomed from the seeds. What’s being seeded this time? Heaven help us. Heaven help the Lebanese.
I guess I am one of the Lebanese not worth their cedars.
Israel is still occupying my country. Israel still holds Lebanese prisoners and the Hezbollah is the only voice that’s giving Arabs dignity and a feeling of self-respect in the region.
As for Narallay cowardly mongering for open war, you may disagree with his ways, as I do myself and I am a secular canadian arab, but you certainly cannot call the man a coward.
His own son was killed in a battle with the Israelis. Which political leader send their own child to fight. As far as leaders go, they don’t get more honourable than this.
Israel is and will always be the rejectionist state. I am proud of Hezbollah and their open support to the Palestinian people. In a world completely oblivious to the suffering of the people in Gaza who are being swatted like flies , only Nasrallah stood in their defense.
[Note: The subject line of this email was: "Are you a jew?" My response was that "I'd be proud to call myself a Jew, which I am on more occasions than I am a Catholic, thank Roth."pt]
Why don’t you simply believe what Hezbollah says ? Intention was not war, but simply to get their prisoners back. After the massacres of 1982, they have every right to get their prisoners back. Israeli reacted like a terrorist group. But then again who is to argue, Israel was founded and is rules by terrorists. A state either attempts to rescue in hostage cases or negotiates. Israel attacks civilians, as a means of ‘collective’ punishment.
[The letter-writer provided no name]
So let's stop the zionazis, like their namesakes, for heaven's sake!
I’ve found your columns to be reasonably fair and balanced. On the bio portion of your byline on “As Lebanon Bleeds”, it states that you were born and raised in Lebanon…so I feel compelled to accede to your greater familiarity with the region. I have to say, however, that I’ve been following events in the Middle East for more of my 51 years than I wish. During that time, I’ve seen nothing but increased truculence and brutality emanating from Israel. In your article you seem to equate Hezbollah’s actions (they did, after all, seize military personnel) with Israel’s. You also seem to be treating Hamas in a similar fashion. I have a problem with ANY type of theocratic government…so I know I wouldn’t do well in a state administered by any of these people…but I have to wonder…given history, past and present, WHAT are you talking about when you suggest that Hamas or Hezbollah HAD the option of negotiating with Israel?
Lest you think I’m some kind of partisan in this matter, let me inform you that I’m African-American…neither Jewish nor Moslem…but I think ANYONE with a sense of fairness… and an ability to think for themselves, can only wonder how they would react to Israel’s unrelenting and unopposed aggression. Thanks for your time, sir. Yours,
Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s history of aggression against Israel are not in dispute in so far as we should also agree that both have made their living off of Israel’s history of aggression against them—until Israel’s string of disengagements since 2000, beginning with its pull-out from south Lebanon. At that point Hezbollah at least lost its justification as an alleged “resistance” movement (something it never really was, more than as a mask for its Islamic ambitions to dominate the region). Hezbollah had a choice. Either go political, or keep up this business about being a “resistance” movement, without anything to “resist” against. To its bare credit, Hezbollah went political. It entered the Lebanese government through fair-and-square elections. But it didn’t lay down its arms. The Lebanese government acceded. A mistake, surely, but what choice did it have? The Lebanese have been pining for peace. You make compromises along the way, even compromises with the devil. In my upcoming column for the News-Journal on Tuesday, I refer to this little bit of history as Lebanon’s Missouri Compromise. As we well know, that sort of compromise only delays mayhem, but even the best of countries make them.
At any rate, Hezbollah evolved as a political party. It also continued to amass weaponry, because it depends on Syrian and Iranian backing to survive the way Cuba depended on Soviet backing to survive during the cold war. And when you depend on others, you owe them. So Hezbollah was stuck between its own will to go political and Syria’s and Iran’s debt to still do some dirty work. We should not err and assume that Hezbollah, simply because it has been and still can be a vicious organization, thinks and operates logically, or even in its own interest. The kidnapping of the two Israelis was pretty quickly seen, even (I suspect) by Hezbollah’s own backers to some extent, as a catastrophic miscalculation: Lebanon is not Gaza, though now Hezbollah has managed to make it so. Still. The thrust of my pieces on this subject has not been about Hezbollah’s political or other motivations, but about the kind of response Israel unleashed, and its effects on Lebanon and the Lebanese, most of whom don’t give a crap, as they shouldn’t, about Hezbollah.
There is no way in anyone’s calculations, moral, Political or strategic, that a response that overwhelming and costly to the Lebanese, can be justified by the kidnapping of one or ten or fifty Israeli soldiers. You might as well say that if by some freak evolution of border history, some crime-riding gang in Mexico that’s been murdering people in Brownsville, Texas, week after week and month after month and year after year—if that gang took a couple of Border Patrol agents hostage one of these days, then U.S. military would be justified in laying waste to Mexico. Wouldn’t be justified. Wouldn’t work. Wouldn’t stand up. Yet that’s what Israel is doing. Of course there are alternatives, the first one being the most obvious: two Israelis are taken hostage? Don’t invade! That’s one. No negotiations with Hezbollah? Rubbish. Officially, the two sides don’t negotiate. But they have more unwritten agreements than there are verses in the Bible and the Koran combined. Let them negotiate over the fate of those two soldiers for two years if necessary. Or not negotiate at all. It still doesn’t justify the invasion. And since when have theocracies or dictatorships been off the negotiations list of any democracy? If we could negotiate with Stalin, if Nixon could go to China, if Sadat and ex-terrorist Begin could shake hands and kiss, of course negotiations are an option no matter who’s involved. Yes, even “terrorists” (that’s the biggest crock of the terror-war age, this idea that we can’t negotiate with that little black list the State Department hones and haws over).
The first mistake of the Bush administration after Hamas’s election was to declare it an illegitimate government, thus ending any possibility of political progress beyond the radicalization the administration itself invited with its shoot-first approach to everything. But let the Hamas issue lie over there for now. I’m mostly concerned with Lebanon, and there, mostly with what’s happening on the ground at the human level. Ideals are future luxuries. Right now it’s a matter of life and death for too many innocents, and fore their sake, and the sake of any justice if that’s what we’re seeking first, the bombing must end immediately. This is a quick answer on my way out the door—I’ve been writing for the last nine hours, I’m sure it’s not quite the satisfactory answer you were seeking, but the conversation can always carry on.